Payoff Pending for Decades of Human Rights Organizing
Outcome of Mexican Dirty War Investigations Up In Air
Kent Paterson | April 9, 2003

Americas Program,
Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC)

When he was running for president of Mexico, Vicente Fox promised a truth commission to clear the historical record of past human rights abuses ranging from the 1968 massacre of students in Mexico City”s Tlatelolco Square to the 1995 Aguas Blancas slaughter of peasants in Guerrero state. Once in office, what Fox delivered was very different: a special prosecutor to investigate the culprits of those and other crimes, plus a military tribunal to try two Mexican generals on homicide charges. Those charges, stemming from what is known as Mexico”s Dirty War of the 1970s, are for allegedly killing more than 140 dissidents in Guerrero and having their bodies dumped in the Pacific Ocean in the style of Argentina”s former dictatorship. Human rights advocates, who have been pushing for decades to get to the bottom of the truth in these and other cases, voice a mixture of hope and doubt on the possibilities of attaining justice with the Fox administration”s approach.
María de la Luz Nuñez Ramos, the former mayor of a Guerrero municipality where many people disappeared during the 1970s and the current city government secretary in Acapulco, Guerrero, recently filed charges with Ignacio Carillo Prieto, Fox”s Special Prosecutor for Social and Political Movements of the Past, against former Guerrero Gov. Rubén Figueroa for his alleged role in the Aguas Blancas massacre of 17 unarmed campesinos by Guerrero state police. "I believe in justice," says Nuñez Ramos. "I believe that justice will eventually prevail."
Still, some activists are highly skeptical that Carrillo Prieto”s office will be able to make good on Fox”s promises. Underscoring their doubts are the failures of other special prosecutors” probes, such as the one into the assassination of Luís Donaldo Colosio, 1994 presidential candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). In addition, the critics note, the staff of the Special Prosecutor for Social and Political Movements of the Past faces a mound of cases accumulated from the 1960s to the 1990s. Lording over the investigations is a long tradition of impunity enjoyed by high Mexican officials.
With much of the evidence pointing in the direction of former presidents as the ultimate guilty parties in Mexico”s Dirty War, the Pinochet Syndrome, so-named for former Chilean dictator Agusto Pinochet”s ability to dodge prosecution, is likely to become contagious in the days ahead. Already the elderly Luís Echeverría, who ruled the country from 1970 to 1976 at the height of the repression, has refused to render his testimony before Carrillo Prieto on the grounds of ill health. Likewise, a former high-ranking police official implicated in the disappearances of numerous detainees in the 1970s, Miguel Nazar Haro, suddenly developed health complications, in the form of what medical consultants called hearing "problems," when summoned into Carrillo Prieto”s office.
At the same time, other top officials widely accused of Dirty War crimes, such as former Interior Secretary Fernando Gutíerrez Barrios, have died. So far, no officials have been indicted by Carrillo Prieto, although his office has recently announced that it will indict unnamed individuals this spring. Late last year, Fox stirred controversy and drew acrid criticism when he suggested in Europe that many of the parties responsible for the Dirty War abuses probably could not be prosecuted because the crimes they committed have expired under statutes of limitations.
Another common criticism of the Dirty War investigations stems from the Mexican Armed Forces” decision to prosecute two of its own, Gen. Humberto Quiroz Hermosillo and Gen. Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro, for murdering detainees in Guerrero state. Many activists say the pair, who were mid-level officers during the 1970s, should be tried in a civilian court instead of the military one, where delicate information will be hidden from public view. In addition, few believe that as lower-ranking officers 30 years ago Quiroz and Acosta Chaparro could have masterminded the disappearances and executions of suspected guerrillas.
Long, Complex Struggle for Truth
Despite the criticisms of the process underway to investigate the Dirty War, Mexican officials have been compelled to take actions that were unthinkable in the not-so-distant past, like publicly accusing two generals of gross human online casino rights violations, including murder. The apparent attempt to remedy a historical wrong is the product of years of political struggles by a series of different actors who have forced the government to glance at its own dirty laundry.
Paradoxically, the guerrilla struggle that evoked much of the bloody repression by the military and security forces during the Dirty War also opened the doors for new political forces to gain space beside the long-dominant PRI. As part of his strategy to quell a radicalized opposition, former PRI President José López Portillo declared an amnesty for guerrillas and legalized the Mexican Communist Party.
In 1988, the opposition candidacy of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas for the presidency of the republic led to the formation of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), which grew, partly on the strength of its human rights plank, into Mexico”s third-largest political force, conquering municipal and state governments. In various states, former guerrillas or political prisoners from the Dirty War have since been elected to public office on the PRD ticket. Using their positions as elected officials, they”ve helped legitimize denunciations of the government”s misconduct during the Dirty War, which was long denied or ignored by the powers-that-be.
Yet, it”s been civil society groups, especially the mothers of the disappeared, who”ve kept the flame alive for decades, nationally and internationally. Taking to the streets in the late 1970s, Rosario Ibarra and her Comité Eureka carried the banner for the plight of the disappeared, acquiring a moral force in Mexico not unlike the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, who championed the cause of the Argentine dictatorship”s disappeared and tortured victims. Comité Eureka has received support in the United States from teacher”s unions, dock workers, and other groups.
Never letting up on the issue of the disappeared, Ibarra earned the title of respect and affection Doña Rosario, went on to run (albeit unsuccessfully) for president, and was elected two times to the national Chamber of Deputies. She credits her group with forcing the government to release almost 150 political prisoners from clandestine jails. In good measure, the activism of Doña Rosario and others influenced the creation of the government”s National Human Rights Commission and official state human rights commissions. While lacking prosecutorial powers, these institutions make regular recommendations to officials about whether to punish authorities accused of torture and illegal detention.
By the 1980s, the grassroots movement for the disappeared was temporarily weakened when activists split ideologically into two camps: one led by Comité Eureka and the other headed by former Oaxaca University Rector Felipe Soriano Martínez, who was later jailed in 1990. Although he denied the charges, the Mexican government accused Soriano of being the head of PROCUP-PDLP, one of the factions that later formed the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) in 1994.
Other activists later organized the Relatives Association of Detained and Disappeared Persons and Victims of Human Rights Violations (AFADEM), which became prominent in the 1990s. Affiliated with the Caracas, Venezuela-based federation of Latin American families FEDEFAM, the Mexican group gained access to the UN, where it has presented testimonies of human rights violations during the Dirty War. By uniting with mothers from Argentina, Colombia, and other nations, AFADEM became part of an intra-hemispheric force that”s coordinated protests and made sure that the memories of the disappeared aren”t swept under the rug in their respective countries. In Mexico, AFADEM has recently been pushing for federal legislation to make forced disappearance a crime. It presented civilian charges against Acosta Chaparro with Mexico”s Attorney General of the Republic (PGR) before the military accused the general. The organization”s advocacy has put it at cross-purposes with officials in both civilian and military wings of the administration. Observers claim that PGR head Gen. Rafael Macedo de la Concha turned over to the military evidence AFADEM gathered about Acosta Chaparro, undermining a possible civilian justice process. AFADEM leaders, such as Tita Radilla and Julio Mata, have bluntly criticized the Mexican military tribunal”s plan to call relatives of the disappeared as witnesses in the cases against Acosta Chaparro and Quiroz Hermosillo, decrying the idea of requiring family members to collaborate with the same institution that disappeared their loved ones.
Will Fox Keep the Ball in His Court?
Comité Eureka and AFADEM have carefully documented the fate of the disappeared and demolished the once-official myth that nobody knew what happened to them. Both groups have meticulously recorded the dates, circumstances, and names of authorities involved in various disappearances. Neither group expresses faith that Carrillo Prieto will win justice for the disappeared.
In Doña Rosario Ibarra”s view, the PGR already exists as an institution to handle prosecutions. Vowing to step up their public activism, Doña Rosario and other movement leaders plan to continue tours of Mexican cities and raise the cases of their loved ones to the general public. Says Doña Rosario, "We”re not going to ask for skeletons or bodies or money… we want them back alive."
Other voices are still demanding that the Fox administration”s agenda include the establishment of a truth commission like the one in South Africa that widely exposed that government”s dirty tricks against its opponents during the apartheid era. Such a commission would air out the past and help forge a new path for the future, says political analyst and writer Carlos Montemayor. "The goal is to clear the historical record, which is essential for all peoples," he says.
Without sustained pressure from a united front, however, it”s unlikely that the Fox administration will shift its human rights policy from a special prosecutor to a truth commission. Other weighty issues like the agriculture industry crisis, continued economic downturn, jitters over the fallout from imminent U.S. war with Iraq, and upcoming national elections this year are likely to keep priorities elsewhere.
Nevertheless, sliding the issue back to a lower rung on Mexico”s agenda could deepen Mexicans” already razor-thin confidence in government institutions, portending serious consequences. In the final analysis, the government”s scorched-earth campaign of the 1970s never completely succeeded in drying up opposition, either in civil society or in rebel ranks. Surviving guerrillas went on to form the EZLN and the EPR, whose offshoots remain active in Guerrero and other states to this day. Interestingly enough, Carillo Prieto is the cousin of a fallen guerrilla from the 1970s who belonged to the National Liberation Forces, the group that later evolved into Chiapas state”s Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN). While maintaining a de facto truce with the Fox government, one of the guerrillas” central demands is resolving the issue of the disappeared. Montemayor predicts "grave social tension in this country during the coming years" if the special prosecutor falls short and no truth commission is convened.
Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist based in Albuquerque and a frequent contributor to the Americas Program.
Comité Eureka
Doña Rosario Ibarra
Mexico City
Tel: (52 55) 5211-0295
Julio Mata
Mexico City
Tel: (52 55) 5597-9152
Judith Galarza
Caracas, Venezuela
Tel: (2 58) 2564-0503


Join our network to receive email announcements that tell you when new items like this article are posted to the Americas Program website. Information on our privacy policy is available on our network sign-up page.


Published by the Americas Program at the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC). ©2003. All rights reserved.
Recommended citation:
Kent Paterson, "Outcome of Mexico”s Dirty War Investigations Up in the Air," Americas Program (Silver City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center, April 9, 2003).
Web location:
Production information:
Writer: Kent Patterson
Editor: Laura Carlsen, IRC
Layout: Tonya Cannariato, IRC